The Omaha recall election took a surprising turn last week. A group opposed to the recall, sent buses to local homeless shelters offering residents a job and a chance to vote.

On Wednesday several of the local media including KMTV Action 3 News talked to many people at the Siena /Francis House who were on the bus with Forward Omaha. Those on the bus say they were specifically told to not to talk to the media about what went on inside the bus.

“I guess they just walked in there and said who wants five bucks? I don’t know how it happened or how it started, all I saw was people getting off the bus,”  Brad Polchow, the Siena-Francis House manager said.

Forward Omaha, the anti-recall group is accused of targeting the homeless for votes in the final days to register to vote in the special election. Forward Omaha came to the Siena-Francis house in a school bus offering people five dollars to participate in the “get the vote out” training. They then took them in the bus to go get registered. Some of them even cast an early ballot.

Some of the homeless on the bus told KMTV reporter, Hannah Pickett that they didn’t even know who Mayor Jim Suttle was. The manager of the Sienna-Francis house said the residents don’t care. “If you offer a homeless person five bucks to go on a bus… they’re going to go on the bus.” He said.

Forward Omaha justifies its actions by saying it’s important to get all people out there to vote. Forward Omaha says they did nothing wrong, insisting they were paying to train people, not paying for votes. The group said it plans to hire some of the trainees at ten dollars an hour for help on election day.

Forward Omaha believes that what they did was completely legal and insists that they offered people training. They didn’t have to vote. They didn’t have to vote the way we wanted them to. Forward Omaha also says they plan to continue these efforts of busing people to polling places and offering them money to train them to work election day for the rest of the week.

The actions of Forward Omaha may be legal but I question if they’re ethical. And I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

The Omaha World Herald reported that when campaign workers called the Open Door Mission and asked if they could load up homeless people and drive them to the election office — with the promise of $5 and a job — they were told “no” two days in a row.

It appeared to be an attempt to “exploit” the homeless and it was wrong, said Candace Gregory, head of the Open Door Mission.

The refusals, however, didn’t stop Forward Omaha from sending three buses to the homeless shelter last Wednesday and loading up about 10 men before a staff member with the shelter intervened, Gregory said.

“Our program director did go on the bus and explain to the men that this was actually unethical and inappropriate, and you shouldn’t be told you’re going to get something for voting,” said Gregory.

Gregory said she also questioned the campaign’s promise of a job. The homeless people were told they could receive $10 an hour canvassing neighborhoods if they successfully completed a training program. “In my opinion, they would not be candidates for going door-to-door in our community,” Gregory said of the shelter clients who were solicited.

The Open Door Mission was the second shelter to become entangled in the controversy. Three busloads of homeless people were picked up at the Siena-Francis House, a shelter north of downtown, and taken to the election office.

Since then both shelters have been fielding angry calls from supporters who believed that the shelters were somehow involved with Forward Omaha’s bussing program. That could not be further from the truth.

The incident has caused problems for both the Siena-Francis House and the Open Door Mission. Shelter directors stressed that they objected to the bus rides and that, as nonprofits, their organizations don’t take a position on political issues.

Gregory, at the Open Door Mission, said it was clear Forward Omaha was asking the homeless people to vote against the recall. The campaign handed out fliers to the homeless people that clearly urged voting “no” and included a sample ballot with the “no” marked.

“I strongly agree they have the right to vote, but not in this circumstance, where they’re told to ‘Vote this way and you get this (money),’” said Gregory, who noted the mission provides its clients with transportation to polling places on Election Day.

She also said many of the homeless people did not make the distinction that the $5 was payment to attend a training seminar. Some thought they’d get the money if they voted.

A week after the incident Mike Saklar, Executive Director of the Siena/Francis House still had to spend a good portion of his day trying to repair the damage that Forward Omaha had done. Including sending mass emails like the one below:

January 17, 2010

Dear Jonah,

As I mentioned, previously, local media have been reporting about the fact that a group opposing the effort to recall Omaha Mayor, Jim Suttle – Forward Omaha – transported homeless persons from outside the Siena/Francis House’s day services center to the Douglas County Election Commissioner’s Office last Wednesday, January 12th.  Unfortunately, some of the early media reports implied that the Siena/Francis House was somehow involved in this effort.  This is absolutely and unequivocally not true.

As a friend and supporter of our shelter and of the homeless families and individuals we serve, I would like to update with you a number of points regarding the actions of this group, which are:

* I did not authorize or support, nor did I have any prior knowledge of Forward Omaha’s actions.

* We do not bus homeless persons to or from polling places.

* The first time that I learned of this effort was when I was contacted by a media outlet that same afternoon, after it had already occurred.

* The Siena/Francis House is a non-profit, charitable organization with a mission of providing food, shelter and clothing to our community’s homeless families and individuals.  We do not participate in – nor have ever participated in – politics, including the recent effort to recall Omaha’s mayor.

* Siena/Francis House policy prohibits our organization from engaging in political activities, of any sort.  The Siena/Francis House’s By-Laws clearly state that our organization “shall not participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”  Our organization strictly adheres to this policy.

* I view this action by Forward Omaha as an exploitation of the homeless persons we serve, and I wholeheartedly condemn it.

And, as before, I regret having to share this information in this manner, but feel compelled to do so, in order to clarify the fact that the Siena/Francis House had absolutely no role in Forward Omaha’s actions.

Please know that I very much welcome your thoughts and feedback on this or any matter, related to the homeless.

Thank you for the opportunity to allow me to share this information with you.

Mike Saklar

Executive Director

Siena/Francis House Homeless Shelter

The Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH) had to spend much of their time trying to repair the damage as well and sent the following mass email:

MACCH members, board members and staff have been watching and talking about the local actions by Forward Omaha to recruit people experiencing homelessness for the anti-recall campaign.  Overwhelmingly, our collective stance is that all people, with and without homes, should have the opportunity to express themselves through voting and through other political means, and on issues of their choosing. This is why area homeless providers welcome voter registration efforts through the year.  In contrast, methods perceived as coercive or manipulative of vulnerable people, by dangling cash or implying employment is unacceptable.

It is regrettable that some of our caring and generous supporters of homeless services have misperceived the shelters actions.  They may have not realized that shelter providers actually tried to prevent this perceived manipulation of people using their shelters during a housing emergency.  The resulting fallout has been harsh and hurtful toward people in homelessness.

Some of these people expressed feeling misled when employment opportunities with the election did not pan out, opportunities they hoped would help end their homelessness.

Some shelters received angry calls from supporters who thought shelters did not try to prevent this brazen tactic.  Those angered, vowed to cease further support of shelters.  What a mess of a misguided strategy that back fired in so many ways, most painfully experienced by our neighbors, many very ill with a housing crisis;  a desperate time in their lives.

Solidly, our homeless service providers are committed to support to right to vote and will facilitate the continuance of that right by welcoming efforts free from coercive tactics.

Erin Porterfield, LCSW

Executive Director

MACCH

(Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless)

115 S. 49 Ave.

Omaha, NE 68132

Suttle has spent a lot of time the past few days trying to put out all the fires that erupted after the controversy broke.

In addition to apologizing to homeless shelters, Suttle made some changes to his campaign staff. He put a new person in charge of Forward Omaha to monitor all campaign activity until Election Day.

Suttle has called it a “mistake” and a “conflict of interest” to pay the homeless people to attend a training seminar on the same day they were bused to the polls. He said that he did not know about it beforehand and that it would not be repeated.

Noelle Obermeyer, a spokesman for Forward Omaha, said the person who called the Open Door Mission was a volunteer. She said the volunteer did not tell anyone in a leadership position in the organization that the mission had rejected the request. She also said the fliers distributed were not produced by Forward Omaha and were not handed out with the organization’s approval.  “Leadership didn’t know about these things,” Obermeyer  said.

But some of the damage has already been done.

For decades politicians have used the excuse, “I did not know that” or “I don’t recall that” or “It was a mistake.”   For someone in leadership who says they did not know what was going on sends a message that they are either lying or they are incompetent.

I once worked for a company where I was in charge of 70 people on a production line. If any of those people ever did anything that was unethical or against company policy or illegal I would be held responsible. But in politics it’s more of about excuses than accepting responsibility.

Forward Omaha regrets how the situation unfolded but said the committee’s intent was simply to provide transportation to people who wanted to vote.

I wonder where these people were (who were so concerned with the homeless vote) when area shelters had clothing and food drives. I wonder where the buses were when the homeless needed rides to clinics and other appointments.

To make matters worse, Douglas County Election Commissioner David Phipps said three people who had cast early votes called his office, wanting to change their minds.

They made it clear they had voted to retain Suttle but now wanted to switch their vote. Once a vote is cast, however, it cannot be taken back, Phipps said.

Because of the damage done by the actions of Forward Omaha, as shocking as it may seem, I would encourage people to be even more diligent in your supporting area homeless shelters now.

In many cases these shelters are a person’s last hope of returning to a normal life. And the workers at the shelters cannot help the homeless community without your support.

News stories from Action 3 News, Omaha World Herald, and WOWT included in this article.

Links to more news :

http://www.action3news.com/Global/story.asp?S=13834559

http://www.action3news.com/Global/story.asp?S=13858282

http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/Suttle_Supporters_Bus_Homelss_To_Vote__113390539.html

http://www.omaha.com/article/20110113/NEWS01/110119828/276

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